30/09/2015 11:29 BST | Updated 30/09/2016 06:12 BST

Winston Versus the Women

The film Suffragette opening later in October has a Who's Who of a cast list. Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst; Helena Bonham Carter; and Carey Mulligan as the foot soldier at the heart of the story.

Buried a long way down the list (above the uncredited Jujitsu Lady and Lower Class Boy, but below Epsom Groundsman and Mrs Pankhurst's bodyguard) comes Ray Burnet as 'Churchill, Cabinet Minister'. Winston Churchill, that would be.

Perhaps he should have had a higher place - because although, fifty years after his death, 2015 is as much about Churchill as the suffrage story, few realise how closely the man and the movement were tied.

Churchill has gone down as an opponent of suffrage - a convenient weapon for those who see him as a bubble to be burst. As Home Secretary in the years of the suffragettes' greatest struggle he was indeed responsible for putting down their violent protest - yet this was the man who would end his career making a generous gesture towards female equality.

Clementine, Churchill's adored wife, believed in the cause - but by the time the couple married in 1908, the Pankhursts had long singled Churchill out as their number one target. In 1903 the Manchester-based Emmeline Pankhurst had formed the WSPU to campaign for women's votes with militant tactics; early the next year Churchill went as Liberal candidate to contest the Parliamentary election in Manchester North West.

The first encounter was undramatic. Christabel Pankhurst obtained a ticket to sit on the same platform as Churchill and began to heckle but - uncharacteristically - bowed to the organisers' request that she should behave reasonably. But a year later, disrupting a speech of Churchill's and attacking the policeman who tried to restore order, Christabel chose prison rather than a fine. Churchill's response was to express the hope that quiet and seclusion 'may soothe her fevered brain'.

Churchill had said once that 'The only time I have voted in the House of Commons on this question I have voted in favour of women's suffrage, but having regard to the perpetual disturbance at public meetings at this election, I utterly decline to pledge myself . . .' But now he wrote, 'I am certainly not going to be henpecked into a position on which my mind is not fully prepared'. After the suffragettes interrupted another of his election meetings, he declared that 'nothing would induce me to vote for giving votes to women'.

Early in their marriage Churchill wrote to Clementine that: 'I hope you will not be very angry with me for having answered the suffragettes sternly. I shall never try to crush your convictions [but] I must claim an equal liberty for myself. I have told them I cannot help them while the present tactics are continued . . . ' But indeed, it was the law-abiding suffragists, rather than the militant suffragettes, with whom she herself sympathised - and when it came to conflict she always put him first.

In November 1909, at Bristol Temple Meads station, a suffragette attacked Churchill with a whip, attempting to force him off the platform and into the path of an oncoming train. While the men around him stood frozen in shock, it was Clementine who leaped over a pile of luggage to pull him to safety.

Two months later, Churchill was appointed Home Secretary, in direct charge of putting down suffragette activism. November 1910 brought 'Black Friday' when a suffragette demonstration in Parliament Square, and the inept policing thereof, lead to six hours of street fighting and 200 arrests. Four days later a scuffle on the steps of 10 Downing Street saw Churchill present and himself ordering the ringleader's arrest.

A month after Black Friday Churchill was telling a Dundee crowd that he believed 'the sex disqualification was not a true or logical disqualification, and he was therefore in favour of the principle of women being enfranchised . . .' He favoured a referendum on the issue. But many Liberals feared that giving the vote to certain, moneyed, women would increase the Tory vote, and contemplating a Reform Bill which might include female franchise, Churchill warned that the Liberal government might 'perish like Sisera at a woman's hand'. It was possibly a relief when, late in 1911, he was moved from the Home Office to the Admiralty.

When the last years before the First World War saw an escalation of suffragette activity, Churchill wrote to Clementine that three 'creatures' - suffragettes - were now in their pens: 'The penal sentence on Mrs P.[ankhurst] will enable the Government to deal with her from time to time as they please.' But on the outbreak of war the Pankhursts declared an end to militant activity and Churchill backed the limited female suffrage granted in 1918.

The women of Churchill's family surely influenced his thinking. His American mother Jennie once wrote that the suffragettes 'should be forcibly fed with common sense', but later recanted. Churchill's cousin the Duke of Marlborough married Consuelo Vanderbilt, and Consuelo's mother Alva became a major financial backer and leader of the American suffrage campaign. Clementine's quiet influence over the years was (as Churchill's friend and secretary John Colville put it) 'the drip of water on stone' - but he was in any case a man too honest not to acknowledge, in the end, the importance of women's work in the country he led.

In 1960 Churchill College, Cambridge, was founded as Winston's national memorial. Colville recalled Churchill himself telling the trustees that he hoped the college would admit women on equal terms with men. (Complying only in 1972, they were still one of the first Oxbridge college to do so.) Colville asked him afterwards if it had been Clementine's idea: 'Yes', he said, 'and I support it. When I think what women did in the war I feel sure they deserve to be treated equally.'